First Nations push for massive conservation area in northern British Columbia

LOWER POST, B.C. — First Nations in northern British Columbia are calling on the provincial government to endorse an ambitious proposal for a 40,000-square-kilometre conservation area to protect major watersheds and sensitive species.

The proposal would cover the ancestral areas of three Kaska Dena First Nations and would be larger than Vancouver Island, taking up a massive section of north-central B.C.

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Premier John Horgan's government hasn't said whether it supports or opposes the idea after seven months of phone calls, letters and meetings with officials from various ministries, say the project's proponents.

"They've never said No, but they've never said Yes, and they've never said they would sit down and negotiate what it would look like. That's all we're asking at this point," said David Crampton of the Dena Kayeh Institute, which is spearheading the project.

"We're not sure why. We have no idea really what's going on in the background of all this."

The First Nations have applied for $4 million in federal government funding for the project, known as the Kaska Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, and now fear it won't receive funding because B.C. hasn't signed on.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has been supportive, said Crampton.

"But she's drawing her reins in a little bit because of the complacency of the provincial government, at this point, to make any kind of move at all," he said.

The provincial and federal governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The plan has been more than two decades in the making. Horgan was a staff member in B.C.'s New Democrat government in the 1990s, which worked with the Kaska to create what was then one of the largest protected areas in the world, the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area.

The proposed new conservation area includes part of the Muskwa-Kechika.

The new area covers a vast, roadless area stretching to the Yukon border in the north, the slopes of the Rockies in the east, the Cassiar Mountains on the west, and to the Rocky Mountain Trench — between the Rockies and the Cassiar — in the south.

Crampton said the proposal was carefully designed to avoid forestry and other resource extraction areas. It lies between natural gas deposits and the Site C dam project in the east, and mining and other resource projects in the west.

In the most recent round of letters sent to various ministers, the Kaska Dena Council explained why the conservation area would not conflict with natural resource development, said Crampton.

The council wrote to Forests Minister Doug Donaldson on May 3, saying it had come to their attention that "there is a major concern within your ministry regarding possible tensions and conflict around forestry" in the proposed protected area.

"We believe this is based on misinformation and a serious lack of understanding of our proposal in spite of our best efforts to keep both you and your officials well-informed and well-briefed," the letter says.

"We are worried that these concerns, never shared with us directly, are having a negative impact on your perception of our proposal."

The Kaska controls logging in the forests surrounding the conservation area and there isn't any opportunity for forestry inside it, Crampton said.

As for mining, Teck Resources holds a permit that covers a southeast corner of the conservation area, but it only actively operates outside the area, Crampton said.

Teck said in a statement that it has not been contacted by the Kaska about a conservation area and would be open to discussions about their proposed plans.

The Kaska have applied for federal help from a $175-million fund designated for projects that help Canada meet a biodiversity target of protecting 17 per cent of land and inland water by 2020.

The institute completed a 78-page conservation analysis, which detailed how the area is home to seven herds of northern woodland caribou, 10 major watersheds and 13 distinct ecosystems, said Corrine Porter, executive director of the Dena Kayeh Institute.

Supporters also say the conservation area would create jobs for Kaska members, who could work as guides or Indigenous guardians who patrol the land.

"We want to protect it for our cultural well-being," added Porter. "It's just a really special area that we'd like to protect for future generations."

— By Laura Kane in Vancouver

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said John Horgan was a cabinet minister in the B.C. government in the 1990s.

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